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Young black men in Minnesota: A clarion call for help

Nekima Levy-Pounds
Nekima Levy-Pounds

Minnesota’s long-standing reputation as a progressive state may very well be in jeopardy. A look at the statistics surrounding the quality of life for young African-American men point to a picture that is bleak and difficult to ignore. These young men represent fewer than 5 percent of our state population, but are more than 35 percent of our state prison population. They are more likely to have contacts with police and probation officers than college recruiters and job interviewers. They are also more likely to live in prison housing than on college campuses in our state. This has to change.

As a mother of two sons, I feel my stomach churn every time I think about the fate of young black men, especially those who are poor. I often wonder how it could be possible for a state like Minnesota, which excels in nearly every key indicator of quality of life at a national level, to have such a high percentage of young black men who live like paupers. The systemic issues that young black men face are hidden from view and buried beneath data and reports that suggest how well Minnesotans on the whole are doing.

In my work as a law professor and civil-rights attorney, on a daily basis I encounter young black men, who for all intents and purposes have been locked out of mainstream society. I often see them standing on street corners in downtown Minneapolis detachedly watching important people and fancy cars whizz by. In winter, I see them waiting in freezing cold weather at bus stops in St. Paul, sometimes without coats, boots, or warm clothing. I see them idly standing in front of corner stores in some of our poorest neighborhoods. I sometimes see them being pulled over and questioned by police officers. And too often, I see them in the back of squad cars. Sadly, I see this familiar story being played out day after day after day and I often wonder, “Does anybody else see what I’m seeing?”

Unseen, largely forgotten

My instincts tell me that we have been taught to not see young black men. Well, with one caveat. We do tend to see them on the crime pages of our local dailies or when watching the crime reporting segment of our local news. Is it possible that this dichotomy has impacted our ability to really see what’s happening? And has it suppressed our ability to care about this largely forgotten, yet also hyper-feared, segment of our population?

I wonder at what point it stopped mattering to our society that fewer than 50 percent of young black men graduate from high school in Minnesota. And yet studies show that a black man without a high-school diploma is six times more likely to spend time in prison.

This has dire consequences for our future sustainability and will severely weaken our ability to compete regionally, nationally, and globally in the new economy as our state grows significantly more diverse.

In other words, we need all of the skilled and educated people in the work force that we can get to maintain our competitive edge. We are already facing a huge skills gap that has left more than 40,000 jobs vacant in Minnesota.

State’s destiny is linked with theirs

The truth of the matter is that our destiny as a state is inextricably linked to the destinies of young black men. What we fail to invest in building social and human capital on the front end will cost us an even heftier sum on the back end. The result will be increased reliance on social welfare programs, increased criminal justice spending, increased use of emergency medical care, and an ever-growing unemployment rate and skills gap for young black men who are being left behind,  thrown away, and locked up.

Conventional wisdom shows that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to incarcerate our way out of our problems. Instead, we are merely creating new ones. To counteract this trend, we must be willing to strategically invest in targeted job-creation initiatives and re-entry programs that will create a positive return on our investment and put young black men to work. We must also insist on policy changes that create reform of systems that are not working effectively and are causing more harm than good.

Nekima Levy-Pounds is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and the director of the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights legal clinic. She is also chairwoman and a founder of Brotherhood, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycles of poverty and incarceration facing young black men in the Twin Cities.


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by craig furguson on 02/21/2013 - 09:56 am.

    Interesting but

    I appreciate the author identifying the straights that young black men are in. But I wonder what is going on when only 38% of black students graduate from Minneapolis Public Schools in four years (per the Minneapolis Foundation). Frankly, you can’t even get into a technical certification like construction without a GED. These folks are locked out. And we haven’t even talked about the impact of a criminal record or credit history like an eviction. Probably there are generations locked out.

    I have some hope with pregnancy prevention, early childhood development programs, St Paul Promise Neighborhood and Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Advisory Zone projects. If we focus on child and family development, we will not have as many 20 somethings wandering about in the future. But it will be a long road.

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 02/21/2013 - 10:58 am.

    Fantastic article, fantastic writer

    On this magic bullet everyone can agree.

    “To counteract this trend, we must be willing to strategically invest in targeted job-creation initiatives and re-entry programs that will create a positive return on our investment and put young black men to work.”

    But the devil is in the details. If those 40,000 jobs are in something that requires advanced education then there is a miss match.

    Perhaps a targeted program through the colleges a work education program that accepts people without diplomas or GED’s as employees with required tutoring by student staff or “future teachers”. Sounds like something St. Thomas and St. Catherine’s could take the initiative in.

  3. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 02/21/2013 - 12:36 pm.

    Data problems

    Successful re-entry is only one component of the challenges faced by those with criminal records. Many crimes do not lead to prison, and many police contacts lead to criminal records even when no conviction results. These records then close the door to future employment at a cost that goes far beyond the offense which led to the record (if even convicted). The fact that concentration of police resources and risks of peer association can be higher in low income neighborhoods perpetuates racial disparities that turn up later as employment disparities. A small step in the right direction is proposed legislation to shield new juvenile felony records from public exposure unless a Judge is convinced that public safety requires otherwise.

  4. Submitted by Jason Sprenger on 02/21/2013 - 01:25 pm.

    No matter what the demographics, skills gaps are emerging in today’s economy, and a solution that’s proven to make a difference in helping the economy thrive is investing in career and technical education (CTE). CTE programs, whether at the secondary, post-secondary or other educational level, boost student achievement and deliver increased career and earning potential. CTE also produces workers for the open jobs of today, and boosts business productivity and economic status as a result.

    The Industry Workforce Needs Council is a new organization of businesses working together to spotlight skills gaps and advocate/kick off CTE programs that work to curb the problem. For more information, or to join the effort, visit the IWNC website.

    Jason Sprenger, for the IWNC

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 02/21/2013 - 03:46 pm.


    Do I detect censorship?

  6. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 02/21/2013 - 06:37 pm.

    What, again?

    “To counteract this trend, we must be willing to strategically invest in targeted job-creation initiatives and re-entry programs that will create a positive return on our investment and put young black men to work. We must also insist on policy changes that create reform of systems that are not working effectively and are causing more harm than good.”

    Instead of spending more of our money (“investing” in the non-profit industry sink hole). tell black women not to get pregnant until they get married, so there can be an intact family with a mother and a father.

    Start there.

    • Submitted by Rogier Gregoire on 02/28/2013 - 11:49 pm.

      Persistent poverty

      As a percentage of the population (per capita) more whie women have children out of wedlock. The difference is that adequate wages, a living wage, and long term employment are the benefits of white people. People of color have suffered the inequities of low wages, unemployment and work place discrimination. With that burden even intact families of color can hardly survive, never mind single parents in the black community.
      That the public schools can only graduate 75% of the white student population is THE indicator of school failure – not that only 50% of black students graduate. They are doing better than expected given the tyranny of a racist society..

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 02/22/2013 - 05:35 am.

    Very well done column, 3 thoughts

    Very eloquent well done column. 3 thoughts:
    Youthprise is working hard to involve youth in helping to create programs that serve them – and this includes some African American young me. The programs are helping make connections between school and good jobs that are available.

    Second, Mn Dept of Ed shows that the 4 year graduation rate is over 90% over the last decade of African American students who take at least 280 hours (between 2 and 3) career-tech courses while in high school. Everyone does not need a 4 year degree. Helping young people (including young African American men) see the great jobs available in technical fields can be very helpful. Of course 4 year colleges should be an option – please see next point.

    High School for Recording Arts (which works with many of these young people) has done some great You-Tube videos encouraging youngsters to not only stay in school but also take college level courses while in high school. This is a way for young people to be better prepared for some form of higher ed, and to say literally thousands of dollars. Please see (and consider using/sharing) the music videos posted at the bottom of the page here:

    Thanks again to the author for reminding us of this and encouraging more constructive action.

  8. Submitted by jody rooney on 02/22/2013 - 11:30 am.

    That’s a pretty far stretch Mr. Krasnoff

    Taking an article about Black men and blaming Black women.

    The last time I checked it took two people to produce a child and both have birth control options available.

    Perhaps you want to read the article again. Birth control for men and women is a different article.

    • Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 02/23/2013 - 07:32 pm.

      Only women can get pregnant.

      I believe that black women are moral agents who are capable of making responsible decisions that will affect civil society.

      Do you?

      Refer to Lysistrata for an explanation of this concept.

  9. Submitted by Teresa Lynch on 02/22/2013 - 03:45 pm.

    Hiring Practices

    There are good and respectable entry level jobs for young people in both public and private sectors. Many companies and government entities have hiring practices which are automatically exclusive. It is still the case in Minnesota that “who” you know can be your access point to getting your application for employment to be noticed. Even knowing “how” to submit an application can be a barrier that delays prompt entrance into employment. I wonder if many white Minnesotans who “look at” young black men, “see” this: unemployable, unskilled, uneducated. I have learned through my reading about the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War in the U.S., that the very fact of not having a job (which was a natural state for Blacks after becoming emancipated); and/or being seen as “loitering” was an identified “offense” and resulted in large numbers of men being thrown into virtual prison camps–forced to pay off the debt to the municipality incurred through fines. This thought enters my mind when I see young people on the streets.

  10. Submitted by Rogier Gregoire on 02/28/2013 - 11:31 pm.

    Persistent poverty

    Looking at this generation without recognizing the racism imbedded in the society that has Imposed poverty on people of color for generations. This generation of people of color are the victims of the disparities produced by an industrial society designed to perpetuate racism. Poverty is an inherent by-product of capitalism. Without the poor industry would collapse. The schools are designed to perpetuate racism. If you want to understand the purpose of a system look at what it produces. The public schools are the institutional instrument of a racist society.

    A fair wage for human labor would allow families to stay together, live safely and prosper. When industry deprives a person the wages necessary for a family to survive then the community collapses and eventually the society collapses.The public schools perpetuate the mythology of a dominant white society by conditioning students to believe in the myth. The best weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

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